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No. 1 Mississippi State falls at Alabama but still is playoff-worthy

When Alabama went up 19-0 on No. 1-ranked Mississippi State on a Derrick Henry touchdown run Saturday, many observers surely believed the fifth-ranked Crimson Tide were rolling toward a blowout victory and prime position in the race to the four-team College Football Playoff.

My mind went straight to a similar scene in Tuscaloosa four seasons ago.

Might the unbeaten Bulldogs be prepared to unleash a comeback reminiscent of the one unbeaten Auburn staged in 2010? Led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, that Auburn team stormed back from a 24-0 second-quarter deficit and won 28-27, setting the stage for a national championship.

As his defense tightened the screws on the Tide, MSU’s Dak Prescott — this year’s Newton (or Tim Tebow, if you prefer) in the Southeastern Conference — slowly began to bring his team back. It was 19-3, then 19-6, then 19-13 after a Prescott pass to Fred Ross in the opening minute of the fourth quarter.

It looked doable, maybe even probable. But Alabama didn’t let it happen.

The Tide answered with a backbreaking 15-play, 76-yard touchdown drive and held on for a 25-20 victory, leaving both teams at 9-1 and a college football superpower in the driver’s seat in the ferocious SEC West.

“It was one of the greatest drives in Alabama history, probably,” coach Nick Saban said.

Alabama’s securely in the top four, to be sure, because of it. But what happens now to the Bulldogs?

That’s the question as this first playoff season moves toward its crescendo. If Alabama can weather an earlier loss to Ole Miss, if No. 2 Oregon can withstand a defeat at home against Arizona, if TCU rose to No. 4 despite falling short at Baylor, then why in the world shouldn’t Mississippi State be allowed a wrong-way result on the home turf of the most dominant program in the sport?

Prescott had an up-and-down outing, passing for 290 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 82 but throwing three interceptions, one of them in the red zone in the fourth quarter. But what about that Bulldogs defense, which held the Tide offense far below its typical output? What about that comeback, when most teams — most good teams — would’ve caved in such an intimidating environment?

The Bulldogs have a layup next against Vanderbilt before a giant Egg Bowl at Ole Miss on Nov. 29. If they finish 11-1, who’s going to dare to argue that they aren’t one of the best four teams in the land?

“We should feel awful. You should have a sickness in your stomach,” said their coach, Dan Mullen.

“We should embrace this feeling to make sure this feeling doesn’t happen again. We’ll feel sick tonight, but then we’ll get over it. Except for being undefeated, every goal is still ahead of us.”

Which is as it should be. Mullen’s team isn’t as good as Auburn was in 2010. Turns out nobody else is, either. Defending champ Florida State has been a shadow of its 2013 self, struggling through ugly starts and ceaseless off-field negativity. Every other title contender has come out on the short end at least once.

All the Bulldogs did wrong was lose a tough one in Tuscaloosa. Even the Tide can respect that.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg